This extended discussion is supplemental to “Sounds of the Wild Frontier: An Interview with Jesse Lafser,” and features our complete Q&A with East Nashville singer/songwriter Jesse Lafser, touching on the process of crowd-funding Land in Sight, her close call with Lilith Fair, and the development of her new album.
You’ve repeatedly suggested Bob Dylan is a significant influence, you recently performed at the Mercy Lounge Dylan tribute, and your appearance has even been commented on as Dylan-esque (during your WWHR 91.7 Folk Harvest interview). So much of why Dylan’s work remains relevant and continues to connect with people, I feel, is because of the nearly-universal themes that his early songs covered. What era of Dylan speaks to you most, which songs of his continue to inspire you, and are there traits of his, just as a person, that you tend to gravitate toward?
Jesse Lafser: Bob Dylan has been a main influence of mine through the years; I tend to gravitate towards smart, eloquent songs and he is definitely a master when it comes to lyrical prowess. He is also an artist in every sense of the word – I love how his sound is constantly evolving, he’s always trying something new and exploring new territory. He is a leader and a pioneer in many ways – a few trademarks of a true artist. That said, I find myself influenced by all eras of his songwriting in one way or another. For a while his early folk stuff was very important to me, but currently I’m entrenched in the more bluesy rock material found in Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited, and others. There will always be those certain songs of his, however, that stick with me through time – some of those would include “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” “Most of the Time,” “Not Dark Yet,” “It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” “The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar,” “Farewell,” man I really could go on… Those are the kind of songs that right when they come on it just hits you right in the center, in the chest, and almost knock you out. I’m a fan, can you tell?
Do you still identify with the music from Land in Sight — or is it still comfortable to play — despite being in a different headspace now?
Jesse Lafser: Land in Sight will always feel like my first real release, which means a great deal. It’s what put me on the map and I am proud of that record. That said, I do think the new material I’ve been working on feels truer to me than anything I’ve written in the past. I get excited to play these songs and share them with people – there is a certain space to them, a certain sound of the wild frontier. The songs on Land in Sight are a little less gritty than these new ones and so in that way it is at times difficult to play the older stuff – only because it feels slightly less representative of the current side of me.
In previous interviews you’ve mentioned how you approach songwriting from both an autobiographical angle, but also from the perspective of a storyteller, putting yourself in other people’s shoes. Has that exercise helped you find some escape – using your imagination to distance yourself from yourself?
Jesse Lafser: I definitely use songwriting as an escape, and often times an escape from myself. There is so much freedom in putting yourself in another’s shoes to explore new perspectives and vantage points. You get to be an actor in your own movie. There are stories everywhere and there are no limitations. This works well for me because I am in a different state of mind every single day and my songs can express that.
Years ago you said that you didn’t take to songwriting as a “craft,” in that you constantly revise and re-write… instead you went with what you could bang out in half an hour, and if it didn’t work, you moved on. Have you changed your approach and outlook to that process since?
Jesse Lafser: I’ve never approached songwriting as a means to “bang out” work – but I will say that the process is different every time. I can’t predict when or how it’s going to happen. Sometimes I will be driving in my car and a song will fall into my head and I have to pull over just to get it down on paper – the muse is not often polite or timely. I do find that for me, most of my best songs have come out in a very short period of time – around 30 minutes to an hour. Other songs I have come back to again and again, adding parts here and there until it feels right. The song always decides how it will reveal itself to me.
Could you tell me about your involvement with Lilith Fair 2010, how you became introduced to that process, and any friendships and relationships that were born from what was eventually a failed opportunity?
Jesse Lafser: I entered the Lilith Fair competition on a popular website for musicians, Ourstage. A lot of my friends and songwriting peers were also entered, which was fun. I was honored to get as far as I did in the competition and it was a shame they ended up canceling the Nashville show – no one ever found out exactly why that happened.
You successfully funded your last album using Pledge Music. What led you to wanting to crowdsource the release, what struggles did you have with the process, and what have you done to develop a group of fans that has become so supportive of you?
Jesse Lafser: I really enjoyed the Pledge Music campaign to help support the release of Land in Sight. It’s difficult to ask your fans for funding, but everyone seemed really excited about the process. I put together a backyard house party in the summer of 2012 where I got to share the stage with some great local artists and people were able to donate to the record if they wished. It was an incredible night. I also hosted a listening party once the record was mastered at my home. I think both of those things really brought a sense of community around the music and those summer nights exist as some of my fondest of memories.
What sort of themes are developing in your new songs?
Jesse Lafser: A lot of the new material has come from my travels out west this past year – I think the landscape I spent hours upon hours driving through and exploring is weaving its way inside these songs. Those times out there when it was just me and the desert and the mountains and the road… it meant so much to me. It’s really a large part of the whole inspiration behind the new record.
Do you know have an estimated release date for the new album? Is it still as-yet-untitled? What’s been your favorite song to come out of the writing process to this point?
Jesse Lafser: There is no clear release date yet, but I am hoping to release these songs around summer or early fall this year. The song I am currently most excited about releasing is titled “Mountain Air,” which is coincidentally a Sherwin-Williams paint color in my home. I think that song really captures the essence of the sound I am after right now. I’ve copied two pieces I wrote that are along these lines below…
Racing through my mind
Like some long lost valentine
The only one to see me cry
the road it winds
the engine whines
Your beauty does more than pass me by
A most welcome stranger in the night
Replay as many times as you like
Reflecting all I am on the real side
You light my pretenses on fire
I will keep you like my favorite secret to hide
You drive me wild
As I drive through your wild
a world unknown
of unturned stones
And wizened winds a blow
Old as time
Old as the first written rhyme
The Desert is my first and final line
“Muses and Canyons”
It’s 5:00 on Sunday morning; the muses are awake. More importantly, they are bursting through the front door in an elated drunken clamor.
They are looking for me.
“Don’t they know I haven’t slept in days?” I scoff. They have no manners and I tell them this often.
But they rule me, and like any unobtainable beauty, they ruin me.
Inspiration – when it is here, it is the whipping winds whispering around every bend of the canyon in our souls. And when she is not here, we are dead and dry as the forgotten bones in the desert sun, surrounded only by dust, with no promise of rain.
We, or maybe I should speak only for me, spend our days trying to find this thread of gold in a mountain of red rusty rock. We take this, we take that; we drink this, we drink too much of that. We need to recreate it. The creative surge, the rush of instant thought, the torrent of raw emotion, the stroke of genius.
Some say the fairies visit them while they are hard at work. “Show up for your job and they will come”, they say. Others find these elfin imps, these sirens of the sea, to come and go as they see fit-completely untamable, unable to be scheduled, much less confined to (God-forbid) any constrains of times. Their ways are not our ways and the sooner we accept this, the better.
There are stretches of this life when they will evaporate, vanish, stubbornly refuse to come to us. It happened to me for a dark and frightening couple of years. It will happen again. But I have come to trust the stillness-almost as much as I love the canyon winds. Because the longer the land lays fallow, the greater the harvest that follows. Ebbs and flows, ebbs and flows.
After all, this canyon was once a sea.
Click here to read our feature, “Sounds of the Wild Frontier: An Interview with Jesse Lafser.”